When Todd Flinn’s Wheatland-Grinnell squad went into Hoxie last season, he could tell his team was not prepared for the Indians.
The ThunderHawks had won three straight, but the 20-minute bus ride was not reassuring for the head coach. The result showed with a 48-0 loss being the start of a five-game losing streak.
Things have changed since the end of the 2014 season for Flinn’s squad, which has no intention of allowing a replay of last year Friday night in Grainfield.
The Thunderhawks welcome their down-the-road rivals with a 3-1 record having lost to Chase to open the season. The 2-2 Indians opened the season in defeat of Oberlin-Decatur and are coming off a 48-18 loss to Wallace County.
The records are identical for the ‘14 and ‘15 Thunderhawks, but Flinn is much more confident in the group he has in place.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at,” Flinn said. “Hoxie is going to be our biggest matchup since Week 1 without a doubt, in terms of competition. We’ve been playing well, we’re healthy and I can’t really ask much for the point we’re at now. … Our mental state going into this game is much better than it was last year when the result wasn’t too good for us. We’re a lot more mature as a team.”
The Thunderhawks roster boasts four seniors and three juniors, including quarterback Clay Schwarz. The senior went down in Week 3 last season and has started his final campaign with just under 50-percent passing for 413 yards and six touchdowns in Wheatland-Grinnell’s air assault.
The now-graduated Dominic Zimmerman, one of the state’s leading receivers in 2014, has been taken over by senior Kaleb Holaday, who has recorded 255 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Four others have caught touchdowns, as well, with Flinn citing more willingness from Schwarz to throw shorter routes than in year’s past, making execution a key to their success.
Hoxie head coach Lance Baar typically runs a 3-3 front with three linebackers behind three down linemen, which will have to change to account for Flinn’s liking to spread the ball around in the air.
“I’m looking forward to a three-man line this week. They’re young on the defense line and hopefully it’s something we can take advantage of,” Flinn said. “Hopefully the matchups will be something we can take advantage of.”
Junior Cory Prewo leads the rushing attack with 236 yards on 46 attempts and four touchdowns, while Holaday has added four scores of his own on the ground.
The Thunderhawk defense has been a stalwart this season, forcing 12 turnovers with 11 in the past two games. Holaday and Schwarz lead the unit in tackles while sophomore Chandler Ostmeyer has recorded three interceptions thus far.
“We revolve around Holaday — he’s gonna be in on about every play on stops — and Schwarz … has been big for us this year, made a lot of tackles,” Flinn said. “I’ve been really impressed with (Ostmeyer). I was watching him on film last week and didn’t realize how many plays he was in on.”
But Hoxie is no slouch as the Indians have appeared in the postseason for three straight seasons. This Indians team is different though, as playmakers such as Connor Katt and Josh Heim are replaced with mostly freshmen and sophomores. Hoxie rosters just three seniors, with no juniors on the team.
“They’re young so they still make some mistakes, but they’ve come a long ways already this season,” Baar said. “Depending on the game we’ve had anywhere between two and freshmen starting. All of them have done a really good job and that’s a lot to ask of your freshmen.”
The Hoxie defense has struggled against the pass this season, which is a strength of the Thunderhawk offense and a bit of a concern for Baar. Wallace County threw for 182 yards last week, making it a big point of emphasis for the Indians to stop the run come Friday. Otherwise, senior Jake Heim, sophomore Troyal Burris and freshman Logan Weimer will have lots of play action passes to defend in the secondary.
While Heim has thrown for just 155 yards and two touchdowns this year, the Hoxie rushing attack has racked up nearly 700 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. The execution has not been up to par for Baar’s young squad, though, as the Indians have spent extra time shoring up their plays for this week.
“Our offense has struggled a little bit more this year,” Baar said. “I think a part of that has to deal with the youth of our team and getting to understand the offense. We got into some things last week against Wallace County that we haven’t run a whole lot this year, which led to confusion and just blown plays that we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Many of the players from the rival schools are friends with one another, having lived so close for all of their lives. And despite last season’s blowout, the attitude is different for the host Thunderhawks heading into this Friday.
“Mentally, they didn’t think they could beat Hoxie (last year),” Flinn said. “It’s completely different this year. They’re going into with the mindset of ‘We better beat Hoxie.’ ”